Sarah Lamb and Thiago Soares in 'Sweet Violets'
Sarah Lamb and Thiago Soares in 'Sweet Violets'

The Royal Ballet’s current triple bill of Serenade, Sweet Violets and DGV is an ungainly thing with, at its heart, the ungainliest thing. Balanchine’s visionary Serenade, in which he prophesied the future of ballet in America in 1934 with clearest intentions, looked very British and oddly unconvincing as the opening event on Wednesday night. But it was the return of Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets that gave the evening its entire sense of unreality.

I first heard its score, Rachmaninov’s elegiac Piano Trio – written under the shadow of Tchaikovsky’s death as St Petersburg faced the 20th century – in a performance led by Lev Oborin, that prince of pianists. It is music which, under better circumstances, offers 50 minutes of eloquent Russian grief, and is about as suited to Scarlett’s nagging fantasy about Jack the Ripper, Walter Sickert, Lord Salisbury, Queen Victoria’s grandson and assorted drabs, as is the Bach B minor Mass.

It was first given in 2012, and I had assumed that this rachitic drama – a throwback to the worst British B-movies of the 1950s – would die where it fell, so inscrutable its action, so predictable its mumming. But here it is again, confusing as ever, garrulous, abusing its score. The company’s artists beat themselves improbably up in seeking to make sense of this farrago. A good deal of scenery – plus Lord Salisbury as floorwalker and a couple of sinks – comes and goes. Throats are slit. Time passes very, very slowly.

That Scarlett is a true, gifted choreographer is in no doubt: he makes ballets that are admired around the world. He has also created for the Royal Ballet two stagings, Sweet Violets and Hansel and Gretel, that suffer dangerously from elephantiasis: the need to edit and shape a narrative seems to escape him.

Pause for thought. The programme, ill-devised, ended with Christopher Wheeldon’s cunning response to Michael Nyman’s garrulous Musique à grande vitesse. This flashing Danse à grande vitesse is a company work of bravest energy, now illuminated by Natalya Osipova living gorgeously for the moment in Edward Watson’s arms, and by the no less admirable artistry of Laura Morera, Zenaida Yanowsky and Marianela Núñez in their partner’s ever-alert care.

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